William Scoresby Routledge

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William Scoresby Routledge, ~1910.

William Scoresby Routledge, FRGS (1859–1939) was a British ethnographer, anthropologist and adventurer. With his wife, Katherine Routledge, he completed the first ethnographies of the Kikuyu (East Africa) and the people of Rapa Nui (Easter Island).

Early life[edit]

William was first child of William Routledge and Anne Sophia Twycross, who met and married in Melbourne, Australia. He was named after the British arctic explorer and whaler Dr. William Scoresby, a family friend. Scoresby spent his early years at "Vaucluse" in Richmond, Victoria, before returning to England in about 1867 with his parents and three younger sisters following the death of his father’s brother and business partner. His family then lived at "Yarra-Yarra", at 3 Upperton Road, Eastbourne, Sussex.

William was the first cousin of British seismographer, John Milne(1850–1913) who worked in Japan during the Meiji Restoration.

His paternal family had roots in Nova Scotia where his great grandfather, Mr Justice Thomas Chandler Haliburton, was an MP, and author of an important history of the area: "Historical and Statistical Account of Nova-Scotia." The two volumes were published by Howe in 1830.[1]


Following graduation in 1882 with a Masters from Christ Church college, Oxford University, Routledge studied medicine at University College Hospital, London. In 1883 he won the Physiology prize. He was also elected to the Royal Geographical Society, and in 1888 received the Erichsen prize for practical surgery. He did not complete his medical degree.

In later years he was elected to other clubs, namely the Royal Cruising Society of Antiquaries, the Geological Society, the Royal Anthropological Institute and as Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (1900[2]). The latter holds a collection of eight boxes of mostly unpublished field notes, sketches, maps, and photographs by the Routledges.

In 1906 Scoresby Routledge married a fellow Oxford graduate, Katherine Pease and an extraordinary, yet troubled collaboration took place that lasted for 20 years producing an irreplaceable body of scholarly work that has for the most part stood the test of time.

As an ethnographer and anthropologist Scoresby Routledge spent his life visiting and documenting primitive cultures that were changing and disappearing in the early 20th century. The Routledges both did so with an urgency that indicated that they understood how quickly the history of these cultures would be lost forever as the stirrings of globalization started to take place when western ideas were introduced in formerly isolated areas (with access to remote areas of the earth by new roads or by sea routes being a major factor).

The Mi'kmaq (Mic-macs) of Newfoundland[edit]

As an anthropologist he worked initially amongst the Mi'kmaq (Mic-macs) of Newfoundland. It was noted in The Times in 1915 that Scoresby Routledge was living with the Mic-macs in Central Newfoundland where he learned hunting and woodcraft. Scoresby Routledge later described in the book he co wrote with his wife Katherine on the Kikuyu, of traveling for four months on a beaver hunting expedition with the Mic-Macs in densely forested country.

The Kikuyu of East Africa[edit]

In 1902 Scoresby Routledge visited the Kikuyu tribe of Kenya, in the former British East Africa. He set up a fixed base camp at Fort Hall which was then a remote area located sixty miles to the north east of Nairobi. The camp included a stone room for photographic work. Information regarding native customs was gathered as he rode about the country with members of the tribe and in the evening when everyone was welcome at the big fire in front of his tent.[3] He gathered 36 artifacts on this trip which he presented to the British museum.

In 1906 on a trip to Naples to view the ruins of Pompeii, he met Oxford scholar, Katherine Pease and they married shortly thereafter.

Katherine and Scoresby returned to Africa together for another two years and in 1910 jointly published a book entitled "With a prehistoric people, the Akikuyu of British East Africa." Katherine also embraced the anthropological work with enthusiasm and sensitivity stating that the destiny of the Kikuyu would be determined by the British Parliament and hoped that readers of the book in Britain would overcome indifference towards their fellow-subjects of the British Empire. She spoke in the introduction to the book of the urgent need for an exact and full record of native customs. She also observed that the impressions of both a man and a woman of similar topics were of great advantage.

The Routledges covered various aspects of the culture with chapters on social and political life (where Katherine focused on the position of women), dress, land and agriculture, flocks and herds, food and cookery and warfare. Arts and crafts such as methods of hut building, firemaking, music and potterymaking were also recorded. Religion and folklore sections in the book recorded the beliefs of the Kikuyu about how they came to be who they were. 136 photographs and illustrations made a permanent record of Kikuyu people and their customs. A few key members of the Kikuyu tribe were singled out as invaluable to their research. The Routledges collected Kikuyu artifacts including quivers, arrows and other weapons, pottery, tools and body ornaments which were eventually donated to the British Museum and the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

Scoresby Routledge’s perspective on their work in East Africa in the preface concluded with an observation that the study of the Kikuyu could offer the British an understanding and living reality of their Saxon ancestors, whose burial mounds were then being studied in England.

Easter Island (Rapa Nui)[edit]

Following a suggestion from the British Museum, the Routledges set out on an extraordinary expedition, (1914–1915). In 1913 they built a custom made yacht, which they named Mana or "Great Spirit". It was a magnificent 90 foot Schooner which they then sailed from Falmouth, England, taking more than a year on a sea voyage that crossed halfway across the globe under sail. En route to the Pacific they passed through the Patagonia Passage in South America, collecting artifacts that are now held at the Pitt Rivers Museum. In 1914, they finally arrived on Easter Island. The voyage of the Mana which eventually covered 100,000 miles only under sail led to Scoresby Routledge being awarded the Challenge Cup of the Royal Cruising Club, which had not been awarded since 1876. At the time there was growing public interest in the giant statues of the island, the moai and so the British media followed their story. It was unknown in 1914 how the statues came to dominate the spare landscape of the isolated Pacific island which is 3,510 km (2,180 mi) west of Chile and a total area of 164 km (63 sq miles).[4]

The Times of 1915 carried a report that described the Routledges arriving in England from Easter Island after voyages aggregating 100,000 miles in the schooner-yacht Mana. The article mentioned that there were 23 persons on board the yacht during its voyage. Katherine wrote a book describing the trip, "The Mystery of Easter Island: The Story of an Expedition" which went into a second publishing. She intended to write a more academic work in later years which never came about. Scoresby and Katherine were the first qualified scholars to carry out an archeological survey of the island. Much of their research has stood the test of time.

Once again, the Routledges' timely visit to Easter Island preserved cultural and historic information that would otherwise have been lost. The material evidence of their expedition can be seen in the form of artifacts, papers, and photographic images.


Katherine and Scoresby later traveled to Mangareva and East Polynesia in 1921-1923 but the work they did was never published as their relationship became strained. They had hoped to determine the origin of the Rapa Nui before missionaries arrived there and the information, legends and traditions were lost. An example of their work there is reflected in the vocabulary cards held by the Royal Geographical Society and the large model of an outrigger canoe from Mangareva that is on display on the first floor of the Pitt Rivers Museum.


In 1920 Scoresby went on an expedition to cross the John Crow Mountains in Jamaica, as indicated by unpublished correspondence held by the Royal Geographical Society. In a brief account he gave to The Times newspaper on his return he described the difficulties of the perpetually moist limestone terrain, with narrow rock passages and lush vegetation impeding progress to the extent that the average rate of travel was a quarter of a mile per day. He also felt that but for the coincidence of a rare drought improving conditions, he would not have secured the assistance of local people. The expedition concluded before the drought ended on 20 April. Routledge crossed the range from the Rio Grande side to the east, accompanied by a party of Maroons and a sportsman visiting Jamaica, a Dr. Campbell.[5]

The final years[edit]

Scoresby and Katherine separated in Sydney, Australia, in 1923, although for several years they periodically lived together in both London and "The Ewers", their home in the countryside of Hampshire. They finally parted company in 1928 when Katherine’s encroaching mental illness lead to her being institutionalised. This brought to a sad end an extremely productive collaboration that provided invaluable research and preservation of the anthropology and ethnography of Kenya and Easter Island.

A horizontal gravestone of polished granite, partially sunk on one side
Scoresby's grave at Putney Vale Cemetery, London in 2014

Scoresby preserved as much of Katherine’s work as could be found by donating it to both the British Museum and the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.[6]

Scoresby spent his last days on the island of Cyprus, living in a villa at Tjiklos, Kyrenia. His papers were discovered by the daughter of a friend on the island and were also sent to join the large collection already held by the Royal Geographical Society.[7][8]

Scoresby died in London where he is buried at Putney Vale Cemetery. The lettering on his gravestone reads, WM. Scoresby Routledge Explorer, Anthropologist, Only Son of Wm. and Anne Sophia Routledge, Died in London, 31 July 1939, Aged 80 years. There is an added inscription on his grave in Latin, "Quo Modo Lucem Diemque Omnibus Hominibus Ita Omnes Terras Fortibus Viris Natura Aperuit" This translates "like light and day to all men, thus nature opens all lands to brave men".[9]


In 2003 Jo Anne Van Tilburg, of UCLA, an American archaeologist, well known for her research on Rapa Nui wrote the biography of Katherine Routledge. "Among Stone Giants: The Life of Katherine Routledge and Her Remarkable Expedition to Easter Island" . Although the book was somewhat interpretive of Scoresby's character, it was based on fact, and a large amount of research [10]

Soon after another book was released written by Yale graduate Jennifer Vanderbes. In a comprehensive travel article written for the New York Times, "A Faraway Land Steeped in Mystery" in late 2003, she does not mention the Routledges. However, her book, "Easter Island , A Novel", shows more than a passing similarity to the story of the Routledges and Easter Island.[11][12] [13]

Both books were intriguing and displayed the fascination that writers and readers feel when coming across this great adventure set in the days when hidden worlds were first opening up to travellers and scientists and the general fascination that people feel to this day for Easter Island and its mysteries.


  1. ^ Haliburton (1830). Historical and Statistical Account of Nova-Scotia, 2 volumes, Howe. [1]
  2. ^ "Court circular". The Times (36047). London. 24 January 1900. p. 6. 
  3. ^ William Scoresby Routledge and Katherine Pease Routledge (1910). , from Open Library
  4. ^ Katherine Routledge (1919). The Mystery of Easter Island: The Story of an Expedition, from Internet Archive.
  5. ^ "The Times (London)" (42421). Times Newspapers Ltd. 27 May 1920. 
  6. ^ Pitt Rivers Museum, Collector: William Scoresby Routledge, Collected or donated by 1925.Pitt Rivers Museum
  7. ^ Royal Geographical Society images. [2]
  8. ^ ROUTLEDGE, William Scoresby (1859-1939) and ROUTLEDGE, Katherine Maria (1866-1835) [3]
  9. ^ Erik Skytte, Findagrave website: William Scoresby Routledge.
  10. ^ Jo Anne van Tilburg (2003). Among Stone Giants: The Life of Katherine Routledge and Her Remarkable Expedition to Easter Island, New York: Scribner's. ISBN 0-7432-4480-X.]
  11. ^ Paul Bahn, Book Review, British Archaeology Magazine, January 2004
  12. ^ Jennifer Vanderbes (2003) Easter Island: A Novel , New York: Random House. ISBN 0-385-33674-8
  13. ^ "A Faraway Land Steeped in History", Jennifer Vanderbes


  • National Museum Australia William Scoresby Routledge collection [4]
  • John Milne :Seismologist.
  • The Royal Cruising Club Journal collection [5]
  • Mike Pitts; The Crew of the Mana [6]